We've all heard about Phantom Pregnancy - in magazines or on TV - but how does this amazing condition happen?
Phantom Pregnancy - or Pseudocyesis - is a fairly uncommon condition, usually triggered by a strong desire or need for motherhood. Even though conception has not taken place, all the signs mimic genuine pregnancy: menstrual periods cease, morning sickness strikes, the abdomen becomes enlarged and the breasts swell and even produce milk. The uterus and cervix can also show signs of pregnancy and urine tests may be falsely positive.
Even more astounding, in many cases of Phantom Pregnancy, reports of foetal movement have also been observed. The symptoms are so convincing - as are the women who believe they are truly pregnant - that the doctors are often completely baffled.
Phantom Pregnancies are still often seen in animals, but in women, the incidence of this once fairly common condition has been dramatically reduced. This is thanks to the development of modern prenatal care and improvements in the early diagnosis of pregnancy.
The condition affects both sexes and all races, throughout the world. But it seems to be more common in women who are immature, histrionic or dependent. Women who have suffered from infertility, miscarriage or severe relationship difficulties, are also more likely to be affected.
Women through the ages have been affected by this psychosomatic phenomenon - the most famous case was that of Mary I Queen of England (1553-1558 AD).
When Mary became the wife of Philip of Spain she believed their union to be a true love match - not a political partnership as with many other important marriages of the time. But Philip was really after a son who would unite their countries. With so much pressure, it's hardly surprising that Mary was the victim of a Phantom Pregnancy.
Mary was elated, as were the people surrounding her, and for a long time nobody suspected her condition. Although false pregnancies rarely go to term, in her case it lasted even longer. Even when her due date came and went, Mary merely thought she had miscalculated. Eventually it became apparent there was to be no heir, and Mary fell into a depression.
A year and a half later, Mary again became 'pregnant'. But this time no-one took it seriously and it only lasted for two or three months. Mary was brokenhearted and died shortly afterwards.
A modern tale
Nowadays, treatment for this condition is available and may involve counselling or psychotherapy. Astrid (names have been changed), 38, went through extensive counselling after believing she was pregnant for almost four months.
She was ecstatic when she started experiencing the usual symptoms of pregnancy: missed periods, morning sickness, weight gain and tenderness in her breasts. But Astrid's excitement was ruined by her husband's refusal to believe she was pregnant until she began to show.
Even when a 'baby' bump made its appearance, he was even more adamant he did not want the baby and they almost broke up. In fact, this phantom pregnancy ultimately cost Astrid more than just her baby - it almost completely destroyed her marriage too. Her husband, who did not want children, had undergone a vasectomy years before they had met but had never told her. He realised he could not be the father of the child she was clearly carrying.
Astrid's marriage was ripped apart - her husband accused her of an affair - which she of course denied - and the whole truth about his vasectomy came out. The terrible truth about the Phantom Pregnancy left Astrid utterly devastated. She had wanted children for as long as she could remember and felt betrayed both by her husband and her body.
After extended counselling, Astrid and her husband pieced their lives back together and are still together eight years later.
What should you do if you think you are experiencing a Phantom Pregnancy?
The first thing to do is visit your GP or antenatal clinic and they will do a urine sample to confirm your pregnancy. It is essential that you do this as soon as you have the usual symptoms of pregnancy - a missed period, enlarged breasts, or if you experience morning sickness - so that you get the best medical advice as quickly as possible.
Who can help?
London Medical Centre:
144 Harley Street, London W1G 7LD
Telephone: 020 7935 0023
National Childbirth Trust: 0870 444 8707
Care Confidential Pregnancy and Post Abortion Helpline: 0800 028 2228
NHS Direct: 0845 4647 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week)
Miscarriage Association Helpline: 01924 200 799